Thanks: To Reagan for beta reading this for me and for being a great friend. Many blessings to Karen and Spike who gave me the encouragement to write it and a big thank you also to those of you who wrote and expressed concern for Cass. She really appreciated it.
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The open road, miles of flat land to the horizon and a warm wind blowing in through the rolled down windows in my new Dodge Dakota let me know I was back on the Great Plains. Those things, plus a really good map from AAA, told me so. The very heart of America wasn't completely flat, but it was "close enough for government work" as my dad, a lifelong government worker, would say.
It was warm enough to have the air conditioning on, but I preferred to smell the earthy scent of the Midwest and use my 2-55 air conditioning instead. Again my dad, a veritable font of timeworn sayings, had used that one. Two windows down at 55 miles an hour was all the cooling anybody needed, he maintained, until he reached the age of sixty. After that, summertime seemed to affect him more and the setting in his Pontiac was on "Arctic" from mid-June to early September.
It had been a couple of months since my break-up with Grace. You remember me telling you that story, right? We were trying our best to maintain our friendship, but underlying it all was that huge piece of me that still had strong feelings for her. I couldn't seem to shake them and they were interfering with us trying to get back to the women who had been able to talk so easily before. So I regressed and did what I always did when I got hurt as a kid. Cass Kendall was running home and I don't mean my two-bedroom apartment in L.A.
I called Herschel Laub, my boss at Newsworthy Items Incorporated, and told him I needed a leave of absence. I had lost my zest for life in my quest to heal and I felt my work was suffering. Laub seemed not to have noticed, but then again, filler items and human interest stuff doesn't seem to require much quality control. Laub had been quiet, but respected my wishes for the time away. Just before he hung up though, he told me to keep my eyes open for stories during my time off; you just never knew when inspiration would strike. He couldn't resist pestering me about work, the sweet old coot. The day Herschel Laub dies, they will find newspaper ink in his veins.
I was heading toward Topeka, Kansas. It was the city of my birth and still home to the rest of my family. They had been content to stay there and do the marriage and family thing and right now I needed that rock solid steadiness to regain my equilibrium.
If you've ever been in an earthquake, and just about everyone who has resided in southern California has at least experienced an aftershock, you know what I mean. During the shaking you lose all sense of connection with the earth and afterwards it seems the only important thing, besides flipping on the television to see how big it was and how much damage was done, is to reestablish that connection with the ground. I remember my first trembler. It was a pitiful 3.8 on the Richter scale, but afterward I stood, feet spread out and arms up, feeling the balance slowly returning to my deprived senses.
I was heading home because I had experienced my own personal earthquake and it was damn high on the emotional Richter scale. So I traded my car in on a new truck and paid my rent two months in advance. I never looked back as I locked my apartment door and got into the truck. In the past two months I had done enough looking back to last me a lifetime. Two months ago I hadn't been sure I wanted to have a lifetime at all. I had come within a hair's breadth of killing myself.
I had survived that walk on the razor's edge, but surviving and living were two different things entirely. I needed to learn to live again and, like learning to walk as a child, I knew that could only be accomplished at home.
The last road sign said Topeka was a mere fifty miles away. Out on the plains that meant I would be seeing the tallest buildings in the city any minute now. That might be a slight exaggeration but still I blindly fished the cell phone out of my backpack sitting on the passenger seat next to the cooler.
The roaming charges would be murderous, but my Mid-western upbringing included manners. You just don't drop in on people without notice, even if they are family. I dialed the number with quick glances down at the keypad. One of these days I'm going to have to read the instruction book and find out about that speed dial thing.
I smiled when a familiar voice answered, "Kendall residence." My mom had never answered the phone with "hello" in her life. She said it just seemed nicer to let folks know they had either dialed right or had the wrong number right away.
"Mom, it's me. Just wanted to let you know I'll be there in about half an hour or so."
"Cassie!" Mom gushed, knowing one of her "babies" had returned. I had been duly warned in my teens that she would always consider her kids as her babies, so I was prepared. Will you think less of me if I confess I looked forward to it a little? "Where are you?" she asked.
"Just a little ways out on Interstate 70. I'll be home soon. What's for supper?" I realized as I spoke that I had called Topeka "home" despite having been gone for several years. I also called the last meal of the day supper. It wasn't until I moved to LA that I learned that many people called it dinner. It's true I guess, you can take a woman out of the Midwest, but you can't take the Midwest of the woman.
"Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and cream corn. Sound okay to you?" Mom asked, in a voice that said she knew she didn't have to. Comfort food. Family and comfort food. I was home.
"Oh, by the way, Lynn called Tuesday. She said she tried your number in California, but there was no answer. I told her you were coming home and would be here sometime today so she said she would catch up with you here."
Lynn Kirkwood and I had gone through school together, kindergarten through our high school graduation. If you believe in the concept of a best friend, Lynn was mine, until Grace. She was the first person I told I was gay and it never even gave her a start. She just accepted it; sometimes I think she knew before I did. She was also the only one in Topeka I told about Grace and my close call with life. It would be good to see her.
"That's great, Mom, I'll call her tonight. See you soon." I disconnected the phone and smiled as I thought of Lynn. She had married directly out of high school to the guy she started dating in our junior year. They had two little boys now, ages eight and six, but I knew Lynn still wanted to try for a girl. I don't think it's much of a secret I wanted them to try for one also. I was waiting for my chance to be godmother to a little girl just as Lynn and I had planned since her very first pregnancy.
Suddenly I was getting more and more excited about the idea and I envisioned myself heading off to Oshkosh B'gosh and buying adorable little baby clothes including a set of those really cute baby overalls. Normally I'm not much of a shopper, but babies are another story. I suppose I'm not much different than a lot of single, childless people. I like to play with babies, buy them gifts, feed them and then GIVE THEM BACK!
I laughed and to pass the rest of the time, I tried to think of and sing every song I knew with the word "girl" in it. After "California Girls", "Oh, Girl" and "Michelle, Ma Belle", I gave it up. Belle is French for girl, right?
I took off the cruise control and slowed as Topeka's skyline came into view. Of course the Kansas State Trooper that appeared in my rear view mirror might have had something to do with it too.
The prodigal daughter was greeted in Topeka by the usual enthusiastic response. Of course you needed to be able to interpret Midwest to know that. My brother Alan was there with his two pantry bandits, my niece Mandy and nephew Matt, ages four and six respectively. Let me translate the conversation for those of you who have never lived in a Midwestern, mostly non-demonstrative family.
Alan: "So, you managed to find your way to Topeka. I guess the crook always returns to the scene of the crime." (Glad you're home.)
Me: "I had to check to see if there was any improvement in your homely looks." (Good to see you too.)
Alan: "Ha! This from someone so ugly that she has to sneak up on a glass of water!" (I missed you.)
Me: "Watch it, butt nugget. I beat you down once and I can do it again." (I love you, bro.)
The kids, while hugging me hard anyplace their short bodies could reach: "Aunt Cass, we missed you! What did you bring us?" (Okay, this is universal language and doesn't need translation…all kids are the same.)
I pulled the kids' presents from my suitcase. There was the latest Powerpuff Girls coloring book and crayons for Mandy and a small football and Oakland Raiders jersey for Matt. The latter was to needle my brother, a rabid Kansas City Chiefs fan.
"Very funny, dillweed," Alan said, which of course meant, "I owe you one, big time." I just smiled as he pulled me into an unexpected hug. The look of surprise on my face made him laugh. "Fatherhood does things to you; do you know I get misty eyed at Hallmark commercials now?"
I hugged him back. "Chump," I whispered to him as we reconnected the relationship that had been most important to me as a kid. He was a boy and therefore my ticket into doing the tomboy things I loved. Baseball, tree climbing, football, dodge ball and general hell raising were my fortes. I would have gagged if you shoved a Barbie at me.
But him giving hugs? Mind blowing. It really made me stop and think. Maybe peoples' hearts can change more than I gave them credit for. Maybe my heart could change more than I've given myself credit for.
After phoning my sister and promising to drop by the next day, I decided to give Lynn a call. My being gay wasn't news to my family; we'd gone through that piece of drama long ago. Me actually falling in love with a woman and the depth of my heartbreak would be news of a sort I wasn't ready to share with them. I needed my family to just be themselves and love me; I didn't need them to close ranks and pity me.
Lynn answered the phone on the second ring. I knew right away something was wrong. Lynn's voice was flat and contained none of the infectious good humor that had been her trademark for as long as I could remember. I tried to get her to tell me what the matter was, but she only asked if I could meet her at a small park about halfway between my parent's house and hers. She needed to get the boys put down for the night and let Aaron, her husband, know where she was going.
I was at the park about twenty minutes before Lynn got there. She'd lost weight since I last saw her and the first thing I thought of was that she and Aaron were having problems with their marriage. Aaron had always worshipped the ground she walked on and I hoped it wasn't that.
We hugged as she came up to the swing set where I had been sitting and she felt almost…fragile. It was like she had the lightweight bones of a bird in her body.
"You look good, Cass. Rough couple of months though, huh?" she said as we sat down in the swings. She looked young in the orange colored lights of the park. I could see her again as the pudgy young girl with skinned knees who used to help me organize games of dodge ball and Red Rover in the same park years ago.
"Not too bad, Lynn. Getting better all the time as a matter of fact." This wasn't necessarily the truth, but at that moment all I wanted to talk about was her. She had her legs dragging underneath her, toes making circular patterns in the sand below.
"Tell me," I said. It was all I ever needed to say, we were that close.
"I've been kind of tired lately, Cass. Just really dragging my ass. Some nights it's all I can do to stay up until the boys are settled. And forget about a sex life. You know Aaron and I were always pretty active that way so when I didn't have the energy anymore, I decided I needed a check-up. I figured I just needed a good vitamin or something." She pushed with her legs, starting the swing into motion. Using her feet and leaning her body back and forth, she got the swing going faster and higher. I said nothing, only watched.
When she was going so high that the chain would actually go slack for a second as she dropped back down, she finally said, "Know any vitamin that works for leukemia?" I could see tears streaking her face now and I stood up as she dragged her feet along the ground, slowing her motion.
"Leukemia?" I stammered, feeling my eyes fill with tears also. "Oh my God." She skidded to a complete stop and launched herself into my arms.
"How am I going to tell Aaron, Cass? How am I going to do that?" Neither of us could speak after that.
In the next few weeks I was privy to how tough and resilient the human spirit really is. I told Lynn I wanted to do a piece on what going through treatment for leukemia was like and about how brave she was. Practical as always, Lynn pointed out to me she was 'nothing special' and that about 27,000 others got the same news she did every year. Who would give publicity to their problems? No, she wanted me to put down my pen and just be her friend.
Now I'm going to be real honest with you here, what I know about medical stuff you could put in a thimble and have room left over. Medical lingo and jargon are commonplace in diseases like this and there are more letters involved with leukemia than are in a bowl of alphabet soup. I can tell you two things though. First, Lynn had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and second, it is a nasty thing.
Treatment needed to begin right away and Lynn was scheduled for chemotherapy in the hospital. Big chemotherapy, poison your system chemotherapy. First though was a lovely thing called a bone marrow aspiration. It is what made the final diagnosis I guess. I drove Lynn to the appointment because Aaron had to work. He wanted to be there with her all the time, but his job provided their health insurance and he looked after the kids in the evening and at night. Anyway, I didn't go in when they did the aspiration, but Lynn told me about it. We had a lot of time to talk. I stayed with her in the hospital at night; she would nap for a bit and then be awake for a while. I think having somebody there made her less afraid. It made me less afraid I can tell you; I was petrified for her.
The bone marrow aspiration was apparently not too fun. A great big needle is pushed into your hip and then into the big bone there where they get a sample to see how bad and what specific kind the leukemia is. Lynn said she couldn't remember a sharp pain like that one since we put ice on our lobes and tried to give ourselves pierced ears in junior high school. She laughed when she told me that at least she managed not to pass out this time.
We sat together night after night, watching various fluids drip into a plastic octopus planted in Lynn's right chest. The first days in the hospital were centered around her digestive tract. I haven't experienced that much vomiting and diarrhea since the Phillips triplets came down with the stomach flu on the weekend I was babysitting them. Lynn was miserable, alternating puking her guts out with being absolutely wiped out from the drugs used to treat the puking. When she was awake, we'd talk. We reminisced about the times we had growing up together and discussed our lives now. Sometimes Lynn would just watch the IV drip and chant, in time with the drops, "Take…that…you…dirty…bastards," over and over. She said the chemo drugs were kicking her leukemia's ass. I thought maybe the outcome of the bout was still in doubt.
Eventually I told her the whole story about Grace, not leaving out any details now. I know Lynn wanted to hear it all to take her mind off her own problems so I left nothing out. It was tough to retell and once done I told her I had to leave the room to go to the bathroom, but the truth was that even after a couple of months I still had very strong feelings for Grace and I didn't want her to see me cry. I went into the hallway, down to the visitor's bathroom and hid in a stall. Something amazing happened to me then. The sadness that had crushed my spirit so often in the past didn't hit me like it always did. I sat there trying to figure it out. It was Lynn of course. My heartbreak seemed pretty insignificant to what she was going through. I hurried back to Lynn's room to tell her about my little breakthrough and to apologize to her for feeling sorry for myself when she was having troubles far worse than myself.
She was dozing lightly when I slipped back into the room. "Lynn," I whispered. She turned her head toward me and I was surprised at how alert she was. She had been drifting in and out of sleep most of the night.
"Lynn, I'm so sorry," I said, feeling a lump the size of the Hollywood Bowl settle in my throat. "I was too self-absorbed to see that my problems weren't even worth mentioning when I compare them to yours." I couldn't look her in the eye.
Lynn reached out and gave me a weak smack on the head. "Nitwit." I watched as she pulled out a folded, printed page from a novel where she had been using it as a bookmark. An area on the page had been marked with a yellow highlighter.
"Here," she said, "this is something you need to read. My sister sent this to me in an e-mail before I came into the hospital. It's pretty good advice." It was a quote from Maya Angelou and while I'm sure you are paying attention to this tale because you hang on my every word, I'd like to tell you what it said.
"I've learned that no matter what happens or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.
I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.
I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they're gone from your life.
I've learned that making a 'living' is not the same thing as making a 'life'.
I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.
I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands. You need to throw something back.
I've learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.
I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one.
I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.
I've learned that I still have a lot to learn.
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Damn, that Maya Angelou is smart. I wonder if she would ever consider taking on an apprentice? I looked up at Lynn. "That's really good."
Lynn gave a weak smile. Her mouth was hurting from a few sores that had developed there in the last couple of days. "Cass, it's okay for you to hurt. Even now, it's okay. You never have to be sorry for that. Grace was a great love and great loves never have to be forgotten or defended. They just are what they are."
I was stunned by the simple truth that a desperately ill woman had just uttered. "When did you get so brilliant?"
"Wisdom comes with age," she began.
"But sometimes age comes alone," I finished. We laughed softly together. It was another of my dad's little sayings.
I lifted out of the chair slightly to give her a hug. I held her for a moment, thinking how warm and comforting it was to be there.
It was more than warm; it was hot. Very hot. I pulled back and saw the glaze of fever in her eyes for the first time.
"Oh my God," I uttered and ran for the nurse.
The next three weeks were unmitigated hell and I learned more about leukemia and medical things than I ever wanted to. From the moment we found out that Lynn was running a temperature of 103, things changed. Apparently the chemotherapy drugs kill off all the cancer cells in the bone marrow, but they don't know the difference between a good thing in the bone marrow and a bad thing. All the cells there get whacked.
Now Lynn had very low white blood cell counts, low red blood cell counts and low platelet counts. These cells all have the bone marrow as their home address. What that meant for Lynn physically was she had a terrible time fighting off infection, was short of breath and weak, and had a tendency to bleed.
The octopus in her chest was hooked up to red units of blood and yellow units of platelets. They gave her medicine to boost production of the missing cells in her bone marrow. They gave her three different kinds of antibiotics. With all this she stopped eating and then they have her nutrition through her veins also. A milky looking solution dripped into her sixteen hours a day. I guess the other eight were time off for good behavior.
Lynn looked gray and emaciated, the effect more pronounced by her rapidly balding head. She was so tired. There were nights she would lay there and just stare, not conversing, as if she had retreated into herself. I would sit there with her, in my surgical mask, trying to think of a way to pull her back to us, just hoping she wouldn't die.
Lynn didn't retreat though; she was only regrouping. She was picking her battles and fighting the tough ones as hard as she could. Everyday she accepted what she could do and did it as best as she was able. I was amazed at the internal strength and fortitude she showed and I felt weak and cowardly that I had gone running home at what I thought was trouble. Want to know what real heartbreak is? Real heartbreak is not being able to visit with your own son because he has a stuffy nose and might cause you to get an infection.
Toward the end of those three weeks the tide seemed to turn for Lynn and her bone marrow started working again. It was working right, too. Once that happened, Lynn seemed to get better quickly. A particularly good day was when we didn't have to wear masks in her room anymore.
I was at the hospital the day Lynn was able to pack her bags and go home. I had been in Topeka a little over a month and I was getting better, especially now that Lynn was also. Her plight had let me see what courage was and the immersion into the love of my family had replenished my low reserves. It had taken half as long as I thought it would, but I felt ready to head back west.
My parents weren't happy I was leaving again. I think every time I go home they hope I'll stay. No, it isn't going to happen, but I sure am glad I can come back here anytime I need to for the unconditional love and caring of my family.
As I loaded my stuff into my Dakota, along with baked goods and snacks from my mom, I reflected on what I'd learned. Like Maya Angelou, I thought of a few things. There aren't as many realizations nor are they as articulate as Ms. Angelou's, but okay, you forced me…I'll share.
1. Human beings can survive anything. Be it traitorous bone marrow or a broken heart, unless it does kill you, it won't kill you.
2. Uncertainty is a part of the human condition. It is for me and it is for Lynn. The only thing Lynn is certain of is the uncertainty of her life. She hopes for a complete remission, but she will never know for sure.
3. Love may be the instrument of a lot of misery in people's lives, but love is what gets you through the muddle everyday. It doesn't matter if it is a mother's welcoming arms, a child's adoration or the tender and passionate devotion of a life partner. Love is life sustaining, life giving and gives a meaning to that life.
See? Not many realizations, but ones I will carry with me forever.
So, okay fine. I still love Grace. So what? It's how that love affects you everyday and how you express it that counts. Grace needed my love as a friend and support system and I realized at last I had come to the place where I could give her that unreservedly. It felt good; it felt right. I'm honest enough to say that if Grace ever crooked her finger in my direction, I would be worshipping at her shrine again, but that isn't going to happen. I'll give her what I am allowed and what she needs, because it's what I need too.
I decided as I pulled out onto the Interstate that as soon as I got back to L.A., I would call Grace. We needed to speak and with none of the stress on my part that had existed for such a long time. It was a good idea, one long overdue. I had decided to cut down south through Wichita and catch I-35 to Oklahoma City. From there I would go straight west on I-40 all the way to California, hit Interstate 15 and down into the tangled spider's web that is the Los Angeles freeway system.
The weather was still warm and the drive flat and easy. I was in no rush and when Oklahoma City came into view, I pulled over and pulled out my cell phone. Locating the number for a large hotel chain, I called ahead and set up a reservation for the night. I thought the lessons I had learned were over, but there were a few more surprises in store for me yet.
Several years had passed since I'd last been in Oklahoma City. The long stretch on the West Coast had made me forget why I liked this lovely queen of the plains. The city was not flashy at all, but had a kind of quiet dignity mixed with a basic American friendliness that I had always found appealing. It wasn't the type of friendliness that seems forced in many places where the tourist dollar is essential; rather it's a feeling of sureness you get that if you had a flat tire someone would stop to help you and not rob you as they were doing it.
When I was here last, the Oklahoma City bombing had just occurred the previous year. The area where the Murrah Federal building had been was a large barren spot, the remains having been removed, and it was surrounded by a chain link fence dotted with ribbons, flowers and notes from a devastated populace. Though the city seemed subdued, a stranger passing through was still given the same courtesy and welcome as always. I wondered if it would still be the same. If any city had the right to be wary, it was this one.
The events of September 11th had overshadowed the catastrophe in Oklahoma City if only in the sheer magnitude of the event. The bombing here would always be a little more tragic to me though, if such a comparison could be made, because the perpetrator had been one of us. The great Us versus Them didn't apply and that seemed to give me a larger sense of uneasiness than the World Trade Center bombing had. It reminded me of when I first read James Thurber in high school. His line, "There is no safety in numbers, or anything else," applied here.
I checked into my hotel, located in the downtown area, late on Friday afternoon. I decided to stay the weekend in Oklahoma City to see the completed memorial to the bombing victims and I wanted to take my time and give it the respect that not hurrying through would accord it.
Hunger overtook me and I left my hotel, walking in the direction of a restaurant I had spotted as I arrived. The Capitol Café was unassuming and fairly quiet as I approached. The front window was painted with a replica of the Oklahoma capitol building and beside it hung both an American and Oklahoma State flag. The menu posted on the glass front door could have been a list of specialties right out of my mom's kitchen. It was basic American fare, not pretentious or fancy, and what several generations of us had probably been eating before the invention of the fast food restaurant and microwave oven.
I walked in and followed the directions on the sign by the cashier to "Seat yourself anywhere, we'll find you." The small size of the café assured that. I chose a table near the window and watched the ebb of traffic as most workers left the downtown area for the day. In seconds it seemed, a gray haired but still spry woman was at my elbow with a glass of water and a menu whose cover echoed the design on the window. I didn't think I'd need the second item.
"Hi there, how are you today?' the woman said, setting both items down on the wooden surface of the table. "I'm Sandy and you're our one hundred and twenty second customer today. Congratulations! That means you get to buy a meal from us." I smiled at her joke and gratefully took a sip of the water because my throat was dry. I had almost been pushed into the café by a very brisk breeze that was so common to the plains. Whoever called Chicago the Windy City hadn't spent much time in Oklahoma.
"I'll give you a couple of minutes to decide what you'd like," Sandy said as she moved to leave.
"I think I know what I want already," I said. "The menu posted on the door mentioned pot roast with the trimmings."
Sandy nodded as she pulled an order pad from her pocket. "Sure does and it's good too. It comes with potatoes, carrots, onions and a side of our homemade bread."
My mouth watered as she described the meal. "I'll have that and a large glass of milk to go with it."
"You got it," Sandy said. "Moo juice coming right up." She took the pad and walked though a swinging door to the back of the café. The seven or eight other patrons of the establishment were already eating and it appeared Sandy was the only waitress. They don't need anymore at this time of the day, I thought. I was late for lunch and early for supper. I pulled a book out of the small backpack I used to carry my day planner, wallet, keys and notebook around in. I don't mind eating by myself, but it can be a little boring. Then again, so was the book I was currently reading. It was the standard girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl kind of thing; predictable, but it passed the time.
The glass of milk appeared on the table and I realized I hadn't even heard Sandy come back as I scanned the pages. I looked up and was surprised not to see the gray haired woman, but rather a young woman, blonde and in her late twenties I estimated.
"Sandy, I like what you've done with your hair," I jested as I moved the milk in front of me, next to the glass of water.
The younger woman smiled. "Mom will be in the back for a bit. She wants to know if you want gravy over everything."
"Homemade?" I asked.
"Then smother it," I replied. "Thanks for asking."
"Not a problem," the blonde replied and headed for the cash register to process the tab for a party of three before walking to the back. I'll admit I'm still gun shy about getting involved with anyone, but they haven't closed the casket lid on me yet. I noticed her. I surprised myself by how much I noticed. I wondered if Sandy or her daughter would bring back my food. Okay, I didn't wonder, I hoped. I was sure Sandy was nice, but she didn't cause the pleasant hum inside me her daughter did.
Suddenly I stopped, realizing this was almost exactly how I met Grace. A flash of dismay crossed my spirit, but it was short lived as the blonde emerged from the back, large white plate in hand. I tried to think of something to say to have her linger at my table.
"Um…ketchup?" I managed to sputter. The written word, not the spoken, is my area of expertise.
"Sure thing," the blonde responded as she pulled a bottle from a nearby table. "If you need anything else, just yell. The name is Abra."
"No it's not, it's Cass," I said as I pointed to myself, purposely misunderstanding. Abra grinned at me, appreciating my humor. Right then she scored big points with me.
I suppose at this point I should stop and let you know something. The name Abra…don't pronounce it Abra as in Abracadabra. Nope, use a "long a" as in Abraham Lincoln. I'm telling you this now because later Abra would tell me that though she loved her name, it had been mispronounced for as long as she had been alive and I want you to get it right from the get-go.
Apparently Sandy had been on a church sponsored trip to the Holy Land some twenty-seven years before. Those crazy Methodists were having a generally great time until Sandy got sick and had to be taken to the hospital. You guessed it; it wasn't food poisoning, but rather the discovery that she was in the first trimester of a pregnancy. Sandy found the name Abra there. A nursing assistant who had been sent in to help her get cleaned up from the evidence of pending motherhood had a badge on that read 'Abra' and when Sandy found out it meant "Earth Mother" or "Mother of Multitudes", the matter was settled. Sandy wanted grandchildren even then. So now here Abra was, living in Oklahoma City with an exotic name and white bread looks. It was fascinating.
By now you realize that Abra and I continued to talk, all during the pot roast and on through the Dutch apple pie and cup of tea. Hey, traveling gives me an appetite! Okay, so does the prospect of spending time with an attractive blonde waitress. Check that. Abra wasn't a waitress at all it turns out. She was only helping Sandy out for about an hour in the early evening as she always did while Emil, Sandy's husband, delivered leftover food from the lunch trade to a local women's shelter. When Emil came back, Abra came by my table with a bottle of water and talked with me. I asked her to sit down; she did and that's how things started.
We chatted about our lives in a general way. She was an elementary school teacher and had a million cute stories about life with twenty-five third graders. I was charmed by a topic I usually found uninteresting unless it was about my nieces and nephews…children. I asked Abra if she had any kids of her own. It was the first question of a personal nature to be asked and I watched to see how she responded.
With a wry smile, she said she didn't think she could handle them both in her career and personal life too. She liked kids as long as she could give them back. My jaw dropped. It was my attitude exactly and one I didn't think I shared with many others with a uterus.
Sandy walked by then and must have noticed the stunned look on my face. She smacked Abra lightly on the arm and said, "Stop it." Abra laughed, a wonderful throaty laugh.
All right, let's make it official. I was confused. "Stop what?" I asked, with a distinct feeling that something had passed over my head.
Abra shrugged. "For a little while now I've had…impressions, I'd guess you'd call it. It's the nearest word that comes to it. I just know things about people. When I was telling you about my students, the words 'give them back' just popped into my mind.
If she didn't have my attention before, she had it now. "Are you telling me you're psychic?" My journalistic nature reared its head; Laub would be proud.
"I don't know if I'd call it that exactly. I've used the term 'hypersensitive' with some people. It's like my radar is a little more finely tuned than most everybody else's."
I wanted to ask her what else her radar picked up about me, but I hesitated. My newspaper background warred with my mother's sage advice to never ask a question you weren't sure you wanted the answer to.
"You're…conflicted," Abra said, suddenly serious. "You're on a journey, but not just through Oklahoma City. You have a resilient heart though you may not think so. You've hurt, but you survived." She paused here and then continued in a quieter voice, "We have that in common." Her eyes misted now.
The door to the café opened and an elderly couple entered. Abra glanced up at them, blinking away the moisture quickly. "Hey, George. Hey, Helen. The special looks really good tonight," she said with a seemingly forced brightness. The brightness faded as Sandy came over to greet the newcomers.
"Say, that was a huge meal I just consumed in here. I really feel like I need to walk it off a little. Care to join me?" I asked. I'm no rescuer of damsels in distress, but Abra shot me a grateful look and for a minute or two, I felt like one.
"Sure," she replied. "Just let me get my backpack out of the back." She left the table and stepped into the kitchen, re-emerging in a moment with a light gray jacket and blue backpack. "I'm heading out, Mom," she called. "See you in the morning."
"Goodnight, honey," Sandy called back as we left the café and stepped into the mild Oklahoma evening. We didn't really have a destination in mind, just started walking slowly. The silence between us wasn't uncomfortable in the least, but I found myself wanting to hear her voice again. I searched for a topic, but went for the most obvious.
"Why did you get upset back there?" I asked, curious but kicking myself that I may be treading on sensitive ground.
Abra glanced over at me briefly. "I…I could feel your pain and it just sort of echoed with me. It felt like a loss and I've lost somebody who meant a lot to me too. It's a powerful emotion, one people don't give much thought to. They see love and hate as the most potent feelings and they are, but loss and grief are close behind. It takes a long time to complete the recovery."
Recovery. It was an interesting choice of words I thought. Recovery brought to mind becoming well again after a surgical procedure or a wound. I nodded in understanding at Abra's words; recovery was exactly right. "I had a relationship that didn't work out precisely as I had thought…hoped it would. I miss it a lot. Can I ask who you lost?" It seemed she didn't mind me asking and I wanted to know.
"My Dad," she said. She noticed my scrunched brows and clarified the situation for me. "Emil is my mom's second husband, they've been married about six months. My dad died in the bombing in '95."
I stopped walking. Abra turned to look at me, her blue eyes almost the color of steel in the city's streetlights. "I was in my freshman year at Tulsa. I remember I was getting ready to head out across campus to go to my morning class when the networks interrupted the usual morning shows with the pictures from here. My dad didn't work in the Murrah building, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I never got feelings like those before that time but I was sure about what I was feeling then. It took a long time to get through to my mom. She was already at the café and dealing with the shattered front windows and general mess the shockwave had caused. She didn't have a TV there and when I told her it was a bombing and not a gas main explosion like she thought, she started to cry." A hitch in her breathing interrupted the story. On instinct I reached out and laid my hand on Abra's arm. She patted my hand with her opposite one, letting me know she was okay.
"Dad had gone to the building to bid on a catering job. It was just some kind of ungodly fluke that he was there. Anyway, that's when these impressions started hitting me. It was like I was given this in recompense for losing my dad. Needless to say, I'd rather have him." She looked at me for a brief moment and then turned to start up the street again. We walked in silence for a minute.
"I decided to stay here for the weekend to go and see the memorial. I'd really like it if you would go with me. I'll completely understand if it isn't something you want to do," I added quickly.
"No, I'd like to go. I try to get over there about once a month or so, for some reason it helps. I wasn't too sure about the design at first but every time I go, I'm more and more sure they did it the right way."
I looked up and saw we had slowly made our way to my hotel. "This is me," I said. "You want me to walk you back?" I made the offer in lieu of asking her out for a drink, which is what I really wanted to do. Guess I am a bit rusty in the social thing.
"That's okay, I'm parked in the lot just on the next block. It won't take me but a minute or two to get there. Look, the café is only open half a day on Saturdays so I can help out for a bit in the morning and leave after the lunch rush. How about if I meet you right back here at one o'clock and we walk over there?" Abra offered.
"Sounds good," I readily agreed. "I'm Cass Kendall, by the way. I'm in room 338 if you need to change your plans or your mind." Please don't, I thought.
"Abra Keith," she responded with a smile. "And I won't. See you tomorrow." She moved down the sidewalk and I watched her until she crossed the street at the end of the block. Then it struck me…was she responding to what I said or what I had thought? I was intrigued and intended to find out.
Abra was right of course; she didn't change her mind. Half of me was dreading her showing up and half of me celebrated when she did. Me, conflicted…how unusual. But you knew somehow I would be, didn't you?
Anyway, she was in the hotel lobby promptly at one o'clock as she said she would be and I smiled at her in greeting. By the hot feeling in my cheeks, I'm sure I was blushing a bit too. Just why I couldn't tell you; it really wasn't a "date".
Abra was dressed casually in khaki shorts, white t-shirt and hiking boots. That was perfect as the temperature was hovering around the high eighties. It was warm and a fine sheen of sweat popped out on my forehead as we stepped out of the air-conditioned lobby and into the early Oklahoma afternoon. I chuckled as a memory from my childhood flashed across my mind.
Abra looked at me curiously and I hastened to explain my laugh. I tapped the moisture on my forehead. "Miss Taylor, my third grade teacher, was kind of a prude. She hated it when girls said they were sweaty. She said, 'Horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow'." I chuckled again as I saw Miss Taylor with her disapproving eyebrow raised.
Abra chuckled too. "Well then, I guess Miss Taylor would say my armpits were glowing right about now." Bodily fluid broke the ice and we moved easily onto other subjects as we headed toward the Memorial.
We passed into the Memorial with Abra acting as my tour guide. She explained the entrance was known as the Gates of Time and representative of the time that framed the moment of destruction. 9:02 in the morning. I shuddered as I thought of the innocent men, women and children going about their everyday lives, not knowing that a cowardly bastard had planned their deaths.
Abra must have detected my shudder because she reached over and gently took my hand. "I felt the same way too the first time I came here," she explained. "It was a cross between overwhelming sadness and almost as big an anger. Just come with me though, you'll see those feelings do change." She released my hand and led me toward a tree filled area.
"That's the Rescuer's Orchard. It's dedicated to the men and women who worked without stopping to treat the wounded and recover the dead. It was a nightmarish task, especially when it came to the child care center in the building." Tears misted my eyes, but I tried to concentrate on the heroic aspects of the rescuer's work instead of the sad and grisly part. "The orchard surrounds and protects an American elm known as the Survivor Tree. It's a symbol of human resilience."
We moved on to the main part of the Memorial. I had heard about the design, but was not prepared for the impact it would have on me. The chairs. Rows and rows of empty chairs. One hundred and sixty eight chairs in all, representing the number of people who had lost their lives that day. There were nineteen smaller empty chairs too, representing the children who had perished. The chairs were arranged in rows with each bronze and stone seat bearing the name of an individual who had been killed and each row indicating the floor the person had been on at the moment of the explosion.
One hundred and sixty eight innocent people. One hundred and sixty eight lives not completed. One hundred and sixty eight potentials unfulfilled.
God damn Timothy McVeigh and God damn everybody else involved in the bombing! I was extraordinarily glad McVeigh had been caught, tried and executed. I'm not usually so bloodthirsty a person, but an eye for an eye almost didn't seem to be enough in this case.
Abra indicated a chair in the third row. "My dad," she said simply. "He was cremated and his ashes scattered at the farm he grew up on, so this is the only place I have to come and see him." I read the plaque with his name and the tears that had misted my eyes earlier fell freely now. I couldn't have stopped them if I tried.
Abra hugged me and comforted me. I thought how ironic it was…a woman who had lost a loved one comforting a virtual stranger who was little more than a tourist.
"It's okay," she whispered as she held me. "I reacted like that too even though my dad had been dead almost six years by the time the Memorial was dedicated. Somehow I knew you would feel it too." My tears subsided to a kind of forlorn hiccoughing and I pulled back a little from her, scrubbing the tears from my cheeks. I could barely look her in the eye.
"I'm sorry, I have no right…" I fumbled for words.
"You have every right," Abra assured me. "I realized a long time ago that this was not just my loss or the families' losses or even Oklahoma City's loss. It is America's loss and we all feel it." She smiled a little. "Let's go, okay? It can be a bit much the first time." I nodded and together we left the Memorial.
We strolled back along the sidewalk, heading toward my hotel. Abra said little and I said less. It was an experience too profound for words. We entered the hotel lobby and I was at a loss to say why I didn't want her to leave. The quiet strength and dignity of this woman from Oklahoma had touched me in an unexpected way.
"Do you want to get a drink or something?" Abra asked, nodding her head in the direction of the hotel's bar.
"Sure," I agreed, "but if it's okay, how about a drink from the bar in my room? You don't have to tell me my eyes and nose are red. I've always cried ugly."
"It's not that bad," Abra replied, surveying the damage the crying had done to me. "If you want to talk though, maybe another public place isn't a good idea. Your room's fine."
I can tell you right now I had been out of the game so long I didn't even realize the offer to go to my room could be taken more than one way. To Abra's credit though, she didn't seem to think I was a person with an ulterior motive. Which was good, because I wasn't.
We entered my room and Abra sat at the worktable while I pulled a couple of soft drinks from the mini-bar. We each took a long drink from our cans and just relaxed a moment, the constant hum of the air conditioning the only sound in the room.
Abra broke the silence. "Now you know why I can feel your loss. Want to tell me about it?"
I hesitated, but not for long. My instincts told me I could trust this woman and I went with it. I had second-guessed my instincts ever since the things that happened with Grace and I was tired of doing so. I told her about Grace and I, the seawall and my decision to keep living. I also told her I still loved Grace.
After I narrated my tale, for the second time in the space of a few weeks, I hesitated, waiting for her reaction. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I was not wrong about her.
"Romantic trouble, huh? I kind of figured that." She took a drink of her Coke, finishing the can she had worked on during my talk. "You didn't have to tell me you loved her though, that I could tell."
"Even after these months it still shows?" I asked, dismayed at my inability to maintain a façade. I briefly wondered if my local community college offered a course in Façade Maintaining. I needed to look into it.
"Look," Abra said, "I'd be disappointed if a love that spawned a story like that could be so easily put aside. It would make me question that love in the first place. Does Grace know you still love her?"
I shrugged. I had called Grace before I left Los Angeles and told her I didn't love her in anything but a friendship sort of way anymore. I didn't mention that to you before? Yeah, I had done that. Moron, right? Never tell a lie to someone you love…even if you think it is right at the time.
Abra narrowed her eyes at me. "I think I feel like cooking tonight. You game to try some of whatever falls out of the freezer?"
The invitation was unexpected and my mind didn't work quick enough to figure out a way to decline. Okay, I didn't want to decline. So I said yes.
"Good deal," my blonde, future hostess said. She picked up the hotel stationery and pen from the worktable and sketched a map to her house. "Supper is at seven and you can bring wine if you want to," she said as she rose to go. I walked her to the door and opened it reluctantly. I liked spending time with her; she was kind of remarkable.
She proved that by kissing me at the door.
I know I closed and locked the hotel room door. I just don't remember it. What I do remember is the feeling of soft warm lips on mine and a blonde haired schoolteacher making her way down the hall to the elevator. I remember dropping to the queen sized bed and staring at the ceiling.
It had been a long time since someone had put their lips to mine, if you don't count my parent's dog, Bejesus. Bejesus, so named because my dad threatened to "smack the bejesus out of that puppy if it pisses on my rug one more time", loves to give kisses. Big, slobbery dog kisses, especially when you might be asleep or watching television unawares. Ugh! By the way, my dad would never smack Bejesus; he just started setting his alarm to take the dopey dog out more often.
So you might say Abra's kiss took me by surprise. It was a very large surprise. I was surprised by how much I liked it and how very guilty I felt.
The air had cooled some by seven, but I blamed my sweating palms on the day's heat anyway. Abra's kiss had completely un-nerved me and I wondered if showing up on her doorstep was such a good idea. I didn't have time to think about it though because the front door opened then. I hadn't even knocked.
"That's some trick," I said as she held open the screened front door for me to enter.
"Not really," she replied. "I saw your truck through the front window." She nodded toward the picture window at the front of the house. "I get impressions, I don't do departures and arrivals. I can't bend spoons with my mind either," she said as she turned to walk through the house. I followed her, feeling a bit sheepish.
We walked to the back of the house. Abra pulled open a sliding screen door that led on to a wide wooden deck. A delicious aroma wafted from the barbeque situated at the corner of the deck. I couldn't give it the attention my growling stomach wanted to as I was still nervous in Abra's company. I should have known she wouldn't let that last long.
"I'm not going to kiss you again, so you might as well relax. I didn't bring you here for a big seduction scene if that's what you're worried about. Is that for me?" she asked, pointing at the bottle of wine I'd stopped to get.
I showed her the bottle in its paper bag. "It's a white zinfandel and I didn't think you were going to try to seduce me." Call me Burger King, I'd just told another Whopper. About the seduction of course, the wine really was white zin.
Abra laughed as she stepped back into the house and returned with a corkscrew and two glasses. "Didn't you? Why did you think I kissed you then in the hotel and invited you here tonight?" She had me there and I blushed furiously. I did that a lot around her. She handed me the corkscrew and told me to open the wine.
"Why did you?" I asked, pretending to be absorbed in my task. I knew I'd be lucky at that point not to shred the entire cork into the bottle. She stopped me with a hand on my arm.
"To prove a point to you, a point I had to learn quite a while ago. Cass, contrary to what you might be feeling right now, you're not dead." I did look at her then. "You feel like your heart will never be whole again, like you will never be able to give anything of yourself because the most important part of you has been damaged. It has, but I assure you it is temporary. The human heart is meant to love and some humans love very deeply. You're one of those; so am I. We don't love easily, but we do love well and when it doesn't work out for whatever reason, it's going to take some time for us to re-enter the world of those who are willing to risk being vulnerable again."
Abra moved to the barbeque and lifted the lid. There were two potatoes in foil and several spears of asparagus cooking there. "These are almost done," she said, examining the items with a critical eye. "Salmon fell out of the freezer; I hope that's okay with you."
"Sounds great. Anything I can do?" I offered.
"Finish opening the wine and pour us a couple of glasses?" she requested. She disappeared back through the screen door and brought out a plate with two salmon fillets. She went back to the barbeque and laid the fish on the grill, turning the flame down slightly. Closing the lid, she turned to me. "I thought we'd eat out here. It's turned out to be a nice evening."
"It has," I agreed, not entirely meaning the weather. I handed her a glass of wine as she went to a small table on the deck and checked the two place settings there.
"Should only be a couple of minutes on the salmon." She turned, leaning against the table. "I don't want you to think I'm pontificating at all here. Anything I tell you comes from experience, not any great Solomon-like wisdom." She hesitated and I didn't push. I waited with a patience I don't show in a lot of things.
Abra walked to the barbeque, lifted the lid and used a nearby spatula to turn the fish. She kept her back to me as she started to speak. "You remember I told you I was in college when my dad was killed in the bombing, right?" She turned and saw my nod before continuing. "Well, I was in a relationship at the time, one that had been continuing since I first got to Tulsa. We were roommates and lovers and I thought this was someone I would spend the rest of my life with. I thought so and she said so." She closed the lid of the barbeque and continued.
"Beth was a loving and sweet person, but she was young. When I became little more than a member of the walking wounded, she couldn't take it. When push came to shove, she couldn't stick. I suppose I should have realized it was asking someone her age more than she could give, but I didn't see that at the time. I only saw that someone I loved had left me when I needed her most. That was rough." Her voice broke at this point and she moved back to the table to get the plates.
"I was crushed, especially when I heard from friends she didn't wait very long before finding a new 'true love'. By that time I had transferred to Oklahoma University in Norman. I needed a fresh start and it was closer to my mom too. I threw myself into school, but I couldn't seem to shake the feeling of betrayal. I thought I never would."
She stopped here and began plating the food. I moved to help her and together we sat at the table. I cut into a piece of the salmon and found it was cooked to perfection. I lifted my head to compliment Abra on her skill, but saw she was staring off into space with a soft expression on her face.
"Want to know something stupid? Even after she was with someone else I still loved her." Her eyes focused on me. "I never told her that of course; I just made sure she heard through friends that I was over her. I cared about her enough to make sure she had no bad feelings about our relationship ever." She dug into her food then and it let me think about her words. The silence wasn't uncomfortable and I was almost loath to break it, but I was curious.
"So how did you get over her?" I asked, hoping for some guidance from this extraordinary woman.
Abra placed the last fork of her salmon in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Who says I have? The only thing I figured out that you haven't is that the capacity of the human heart is infinite. You can love someone all your life and still have room inside for someone else, maybe several someone else's. That's why I kissed you, Cass." She picked up the bottle of wine and topped off both of our glasses. "You felt guilty when I kissed you, didn't you?" she asked.
I had to agree. "Yeah, I did. More than that, even though Grace doesn't love me I felt almost…unfaithful somehow."
She nodded. "That's natural. You liked it though too, I hope."
I gave her a shy smile. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't."
"There's your proof then," Abra said. She stood, picked up her now empty plate and I did likewise. "The guilty feeling is the part of you that loves and will always love Grace. The part that enjoyed it is your heart showing you that you have room for more than her there. There's no more positive proof you can have to know you're alive than to feel those very human, confused feelings. Don't worry about having them; be happy that you do."
Abra smiled at me then and asked, "You like old movies? There's a good one on tonight." She went inside and after a moment I followed, wondering if this woman was one of the people my heart would make room for.
We moved into Abra's living room and that's really what it was, a room Abra lived in. Books and folders were in small piles here and there and I could tell by the arrangements which chair she sat in to grade papers. It was a large, tan colored overstuffed thing with a matching ottoman. Pens and magic makers of many colors sat nearby in a cup adorned with the logo, "Teachers do it with Class". The television remote control and a bottle of water sat within reach also. The universe could be controlled from a chair like that and I could just see Abra sitting there, legs curled under her, working away at some project or another. She certainly wasn't neat, but she was genuine and it made her very real, very human, to me. She wasn't the sort of person you put on a pedestal, but was surely the kind of person who deserved to be there.
She kicked off her runners and sat on the couch while picking up the remote from its previous resting place. She sat far enough to one side that I could enjoy her nearness yet have enough space not to feel crowded. Oddly enough, Abra never made me feel crowded at all and that hadn't happened since I met…Grace. That flash of guilt hit me again. I swear, Titanic survivors have less guilt than I do.
"Will you relax?" Abra asked with mild exasperation. "It's just a movie for cripes sake, not a commitment ceremony." I laughed at my own nervousness and settled in to watch whatever she chose. It was a pleasure to be near her, no matter what we were doing.
Casablanca! I'd seen snippets of the movie, of course. Who hasn't? I'd never seen it all the way through though. From the first scenes I was captured and I forgot my uneasiness as I watched Peter Lorre entrust Humphrey Bogart with those letters of transit. The movie might have been made in 1942, but its story was timeless. By the time the final scenes were playing out, I knew I was watching a truly great film and one that would remain one of my favorites forever.
Then the movie was coming to a close and suddenly I was out on the tarmac with Rick and Ilsa. Can I tell you how much I wanted them to end up together? Nope, a happy ending wasn't going to happen in the movie either. I knew their romance was not to be when Humphrey Bogart looked over at Ingrid Bergman and uttered that famous line, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Those words resonated in me. A hill of beans, that's what my seemingly huge problems really were in the grand scheme of things. What was Rick and Ilsa's love when compared to the Nazi threat and what was my little heartbreak when compared to Lynn's disease or Abra's loss? I felt like a worm for even whining about my little emotional trauma. Rick and Captain Renault walked into the fog to forge a friendship and fight Nazi's and I sat on the couch getting more and more irritated at the situation.
Abra sat up and hit the mute button as previews for the next movie played out on the screen. "Did you like it?" she asked.
How could I not? "It was great," I replied. "One of the best I've ever seen."
"Do you know what it's about?" Abra quizzed.
"Hello…I sat right next to you and watched it with you. It was about fighting evil and sacrificing and good versus…"
"It was a love story," Abra interrupted quietly. "Pure and simple, it was a love story."
"But Lazlo and Major Strasser…the Nazi's…"
"Are all secondary to the love story," Abra assured me. "But it's a love story that's just in the wrong place and the wrong time." She settled back on the couch again and looked over at me. "I like to think Rick and Ilsa did end up together in another lifetime or a parallel universe on the far side of the sun or something like that. That's why they were drawn to one another; they had been together before or will be together again in the future."
I thought about what she said. "That's a pretty far-fetched notion."
Abra shrugged. "It's as good an explanation as any for why we 'click' with some people or fall in love with them or why we stay in love with them even after it's clear there's no future in it."
I looked at her and couldn't think of anything that sounded less crazy to explain it. Why do we fall in love and why do we feel that some people are our soulmates? Will I end up with Grace in another place or time? Hell if I know. I sat back against the couch, next to her, thinking about her theory. "You think we've met before?" I asked.
"Maybe," she answered. "I know I feel comfortable with you and I think we've clicked ever since we met. You might have heard that click if you didn't have a big dose of Grace stopping up your ears."
I laughed. "You think so? You might be right there." I glanced at the TV. A short subject was on and I decided to let a small truth escape. "You know something, Abra? It was faint, but earlier I'm pretty sure I heard a click too."
Abra gave me a sidelong glance and nudged me with her elbow. "Flatterer. Now shut up; 'Notorious' is on next. An Ingrid Bergman double feature…I'm in heaven."
Though it may have only been a tiny, little bit…I sort of agreed.
It was well after midnight when the movie ended and I finally rose to leave. Abra walked me to my truck. Her neighborhood was quiet with only a few lights still on in the surrounding houses. The night was calm as we made our way down the walk to the curb.
"Thanks for the most pleasant evening I've had in a very long time," I said. I kept my voice low to avoid disturbing her neighbors, as it was still weather for having your windows open at night. I hoped that despite the volume, she would hear the sincerity in my words.
"Thanks for giving me a reason to play hostess," she replied as we stopped by my truck. I used the remote to silently unlock the doors. Abra stuck her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "Look, this is a weird situation for me. I'm not a person who trusts easily or lets anybody I've pretty much just met know so much about me, but I do feel like we have a connection of some kind or another. Maybe it's too early in the game for you, but…well, I know I promised not to kiss you again…" She trailed off and I realized it was the first time I'd seen her the least bit uncomfortable.
What choice did I have? My mom raised me to be a gracious guest so I reached over to her and gently kissed her. It was nice and that unfaithful feeling seemed to have diminished some.
"There. Now you didn't break your word; I kissed you," I said after I pulled back. Then I kissed her one more time just to let her know I wasn't being obliging, but rather I did it because I wanted to.
She smiled at me when the kiss broke. "Welcome back to the fight," she said, quoting Casablanca. I chuckled as I climbed into the driver's side. I rolled the window down and just looked at her.
She moved closer and put both hands on the door. "Cass, you live in Los Angeles and I live in Oklahoma. We've both got some baggage and ghosts in our past we have to deal with and I know that even under perfect circumstances this might be tough, but…I'd like to keep in touch. Who knows? Maybe one day…well, you know."
"Yeah," I said. "I know."
She stood up, put her hands back in her pockets and shrugged. "Besides, even if things don't work out with us…"
"We'll always have Paris?" I quipped.
She smiled. "Something like that. Be careful driving, okay?"
I started the truck and wondered if I was heading in the direction of my destiny or not. "Take care of yourself, Abra."
"You too, Cass. Safe journey."
With a wave, I headed down the street. In my rearview mirror I watched her watch me until I turned the corner and she was lost to my sight.
So I'm sitting here writing all this down in my journal. I'm at a rest stop near Flagstaff, Arizona on my way back to L.A. and back to work. It has definitely gotten cooler here in the mountains as opposed to the desert I've just passed through. I'm sort of at a cooler place in my life too, but it took a long hot stretch across the desert to get here.
You know, we get a lot of unexpected gifts in our lives if only we have the understanding to see them. Sometimes the gifts are life lessons and sometimes the gifts are people. I've been fortunate to have both. My family and friends have been gifts; Grace and Abra have been gifts too. Grace gave me the precious gift of opening me up to the possibility and potential of love. Maybe Abra will help keep my heart open.
I just called Grace. It was a good conversation, the best we've had in a long time. I missed hearing her voice and the easy way it's always been to talk to her. It felt like we're moving back in that direction and I'm glad. Grace has meant too much to me to lose and though it will take work on both our parts, I really want to salvage our friendship. If we can't work it out though, that will be all right too, I suppose. Grace will be tucked safely in my heart until I draw my last breath and that's something I welcome now.
At this point though I'm turning to my future. I can contemplate it now without the pain I have in the past. You've been a good friend to listen to my story and stick with me even though I bet at times you thought I needed either a kick in the pants or a psychiatrist. If you ever need to confide in somebody, just let me know….I'm here for you.
In the movie "Auntie Mame", the great actress Rosalind Russell said, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death." I think I'm finally ready to take my place at the table.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to make that first step toward my destiny. I'm going to phone Abra. I'm not sure what will happen, but I rather think somehow she'll be expecting my call.
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